From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson

October 04, 2010 by clevelandplayhouse in 2010-11 Season

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson Since 2003, more than ten million people have found themselves captivated by Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. Amir’s epic story begins in his childhood in 1970s Kabul and spans the Soviet occupation and war in the 1980s, his escape to America and his eventual return to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. It encompasses the fates of his family, his neighbors and his closest childhood companion—his servant Hassan—whose life is forever changed by actions that Amir comes to regret. Against a colorful sweep of culture and history, The Kite Runner remains grounded in the experiences of friendship and growing up, betrayal, loss and redemption. While The Kite Runner has attracted media attention because of Afghanistan’s continued presence on the evening news, the book itself has drawn readers in with its drama and complexity, sympathetic and detailed characterization and exciting plot.

Actors Theatre Artistic Director Marc Masterson was one of those people who found himself riveted while reading The Kite Runner. He was also struck by the universality of the book . “It’s a personal story and an immigrant story,” he explains. “It’s about somebody who came to America and returned home in order to reconcile his past, and in that way, it also takes us on a journey across cultures. Plus it’s just a ripping good tale.”

When he heard that playwright Matthew Spangler had adapted The Kite Runner for the stage, Masterson was eager to see the result. He was impressed with Spangler’s faithful yet theatrical adaptation, and the writer’s treatment of the central character of Amir. “Matthew’s adaptation is true to the novel, but he knows how to write for the stage,” Masterson says. “For instance, the use of Amir as the narrator to guide us through the story mirrors the point of view in the book, but personalizes the story as we’re watching it. At its core, this play is Amir’s search—he learns ‘how to be good again,’ and how to come to terms with who he is and what he did as a boy. This journey traverses space, time and culture. That scope presents a challenge to the director, of course, and will guide the choices that I’ll make.”

Deep in the rehearsal and design process, Masterson made choices that will shape the audience’s experience. While the 2007 film adaptation relied heavily on images, he and set designer Michael Raiford are anticipating a more abstract and minimal visual world. “A play can’t recreate the visual reality of Afghanistan through the years,” he explains, “and that’s both our challenge and the play’s strength. On stage, when you’re in the streets of Kabul, you have to imagine what that looks like. I think that your imagination is as powerful as what a filmmaker can show you. That’s the trick of a successful stage adaptation—to give the audience enough information with live actors, and live musicians, and all the tools of storytelling, leaving their imaginations to fill out the rest.” A large ensemble of performers portray multiple roles, and the adaptation doesn’t ask audience members to forget that they are in the theatre. This engagement with the cast—which can be personal and intimate—allows us to feel the full emotional impact of Amir’s decisions and their consequences.

The vocabulary of theatre can vividly suggest the details of the Afghan world. Without recreating a Kabul street onstage, a sound or a shadow can capture its essence. In addition to the ensemble of talented actors, the production features musician Salar Nadar, a master of the tabla—a dual drum percussion instrument popular in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan—who remains onstage throughout the performance.

Masterson was also advised by Humaira Ghilzai, who served as an Afghani cultural consultant. In addition to helping stage culturally specific events like the play’s wedding and birthday party, she ffered her perspective in rehearsal in order ensure that the production truthfully depicts the complex world of the play. “I’ve learned that Afghanistan is quite a cultural melting pot because it’s been a crossroads for cultures—Greek, Persian, Mongolian, Arab, Ottoman, Russian and British, just for starters—for centuries,” notes Masterson, who says that Ghilzai participated in casting and design conversations. “Ultimately this diversity became liberating. I was able to cast the play with people who looked appropriate, some of whom are Afghani and some of whom are not. It was Humaira who told me just to ‘cast the best actor!’”

It’s excellent advice, because while The Kite Runner is remarkable in its ability to evoke the world of Afghanistan, at its core it tells a universal, human story, one that resonates with immigrant and family experiences in very different parts of the world. Indeed, it is in many ways a quintessentially American story. From the first scenes of boys playing cowboys and Indians to Amir’s life in California, the dream and idea of America is a constant presence in the play. Even audience members who have read the novel may be surprised. “People remember it as a dark story, and that’s true in its moments of crisis, but at its heart, The Kite Runner is a story about redemption,” Masterson concludes. “You don’t have salvation without trials, so the trials of the story are necessary. But hope perseveres, a kind of hopefulness that is fundamentally American.”

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson

From the Director's Chair: Marc Masterson




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